Fit For You: Rowing

Aug 31, 2017

For centuries, humans have used boats for work and transportation. However, rowing boats for sport didn’t start until the early and mid-eighteen hundreds, at English universities like Oxford and Cambridge.

It caught on later in the United States, though the annual rowing match between Harvard and Yale has been held for more than 150 years.

Here in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Rowing Club was founded in 1894, and has gradually moved down the river from north of the North Avenue dam to its current spot on Commerce Street in a boathouse constructed in 2003.

You might have seen teams of rowers in bright shirts amidst the paddle taverns and tour boats on the Milwaukee River, but most people have never sat down in a racing shell. Roger Huffman, Milwaukee Rowing Club director and head girls coach, explains that there are two types of rowing: sweeping and sculling.

Sweep: Each individual oarsmen (or rower) has one oar that goes out towards one side of the boat. Both hands are placed on the handle of one oar on either port or starboard side. A coxswain steers the boat and gives directions to a crew of pairs, fours, or eights.

Sculling: Each rower has two oars - one on each side of the boat. You can scull individually, but most common are doubles and quads. Sculling however, doesn't involve a coxswain.

Roger Huffman and Audrey Nowakowski in the Milwaukee Rowing Club boathouse.
Credit Mitch Teich

"There's no star player," states Hoffman. "There's no LeBron James like there is in basketball where you can kind of take over a game. If you're sitting in an eight, everybody's got to be on the same page and they all have to be putting in their effort in order for the boat to move."

Whether someone rows alone or on a team, Huffman says that "it's all progressive, but it's definitely a very, very tough sport. And it takes a certain level of determination and push to be good at it."

One common misconception is that rowing is primarily upper body strength. Huffman notes that the arms are actually the least utilized body part when it comes to the motion of rowing.

"People's minds, I think, divert very quickly to canoeing or kayaking where you're sitting stagnant and you're using your upper body. Rowing actually is more legs than it is arms," he says.

In fact, rowing is about 60% legs, 30% core, and 10% arms according to Huffman.

"The legs are the strongest part of your body, and when you put the blade in the water at what we call the "catch" and you're at full compression, you're going to start driving the boat forward...And then as you are driving the legs down, then it moves into your upper body swing, or your core, and then finally completing the stroke with your arms," he explains.

Roger Huffman and Audrey Nowakowski practice rowing techniques on a double racing shell on the Milwaukee River.
Credit Mitch Teich

Even if you cannot get out on the water, Huffman says utilizing an erg (an indoor rowing machine) at your local gym will still provide great physical and cardio conditioning benefits. "It's a full body workout throughout the rowing stroke, and it's low-impact." Low-impact means safe and accessible for any age, but Huffman also notes that low-impact doesn't mean easy.

Roger Huffman explains the proper rowing technique on the erg (indoor rowing machine) to Audrey Nowakowski.
Credit Charlie Teich

Huffman says that just like in many other sports, there are many tiers to rowing. "You can be doing it at a recreational level or you can be doing it at an Olympic level and everything in between. So it really depends what you're looking to get out of it," he says.

Having personally experienced rowing at the collegiate level to coaching high school students and leading adult recreational rowing, Huffman says that people can find physical and mental enjoyment from this unique and historical sport.

"Just give it a shot. What's the worst that could happen?" he asks. "Maybe you don't like it and you don't come back, but maybe you fall in love with it and it's something you really take to."